Search billions of records on
Other pages & sections of our site:
[Home]  [Y-DNA results]   [Contacts]   [Groups[Haplogroups[Trees & Lines]  [Project Blog]  [Special Features]  
On this page:

History of English Common Surnames

This page is about the author's theory for the adoption of surnames by commoners in Britain. Other parts of Europe appear to follow the same general pattern, but we focus here on Britain and English surnames. 

To define the term: By surname, we mean an inherited family name, which is passed down from fathers (or mothers) to their children. The order in a sequence of names is not critical; it needn't be the last name. See Wikipedia.

What a surname is not. We do not include any of the following other types of names:

The Problem

Very little academic attention -- either scientific or historical -- has been paid to the crucial-to-genealogy questions of exactly how, why, where and when the custom of surnames for everyone came into common use. The issue is complicated;  many variations on naming practices exist around the world.

Yet, answers to the question of when a culture adopted inherited family names establish the beginning of the genealogical time frame (GTF) in which it's possible to specifically identify one's ancestors.

Unfounded speculation abounds, usually unsupported by any basis . Also in great supply are vague generalities, without adequate detail to aid understanding. This is an attempt to posit a theory capable of being tested by evidence and sufficiently "fleshed out" to enable comprehension of the process.

We focus here primarily on England & English surnames, for these reasons:

  1. To reduce the scope of examination to a manageable size.
  2. Because Taylor is primarily of English origin, deriving from the French "tailleur".

We can not discuss one social practice (surnames) without considering their context. We must discuss the social and economic conditions and their changes at the time.

Beginning of Surnames vs. Universality

There is a major difference between some people using surnames and all (or almost all) people having them. A practice followed by a small fraction of the "top 1%" of a society is not representative of the whole society.

From the first use of surnames in Europe to universal use in England (~1400), 90% of the population were poor commoners -- serfs of various kinds. They had given names and often bynames, but no surnames.

We are therefore interested in surname use by commoners. As we'll see, surnames for the high-born did not necessarily mean the common people used them. However for surnames to become a universal phenomenon, it is essential that the lower 99% of the population have them.

Classifications of Surnames

Surnames can be classified by their derivation (original meaning), by frequency in the population and by the number of origins (founders or source points).

By Derivation

By Frequency

Some names are more common than others; some are rare. Names can be ranked by their frequency of occurrence in a population, prodcuing a graph like this oneK

Surname frequency follows "power lalw"

We will classify them roughly as

Number of origins

Some surnames have only a single founder, who is the patriarch of the family which bears his name today. Others had many, many unrelat4d founders. Using the Irvine suystem, we classify names as

Implications of classification

Derivations and origins influence frequency. Occupational names tend to have had many founders and, thus, be common.

Main Hypothesis

A name is a label attached to a person to identify him or her. Names appear to have been used to tell one person from another for many millennia and are used in most cultures. On the other hand, surnames (i.e., inherited family names) are today universal in Western culture, but  it was not always so.

Naming practices are  culturally defined. They are outgrowths of traditions as modified by social, economic and political conditions.  When changes occur in the naming practices of a culture, we must look to changes in conditions for explanations. England was subject to influence by other cultures; we'll mention those influences to paint the picture.

We posit that surnames for commoners (not merely the nobility) arose in England from social & economic turmoil following the Black Death, the pandemic of bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in 1348 and 1349. Subsequent waves of the same disease kept recurring until the 1700s. This led to greater and heretofore unknown freedom of movement and employment for commoners and growth of a middle class of artisans and merchants. Family names became a necessary means for government to maintain control of the populace -- with tax collection and criminal identification being among the motives.

The push for commoners' surnames comes largely in the aftermath of the Plague (Yersinia pestis), which killed one-third or more of Europe's population in the mid- to late-1300s and severely disrupted the social and economic orders.

The chief argument for this theory is that the movement to universal surnames (i.e., for commoners) comes immediately on the heels of the Plague.

Exceptions to the hypothesis

There are some specific surnames which do not fit the theory. An example is "Dangerfield", which may derive from D'Angervil, a family of Norman nobility who accompanied William the Conqueror and received vast estates from him.

Secondary Hypothesis

Surnames for commoners were a consequence of their increased freedom. When they were confined to a particular residence and employment, surnames were unnecessary. As they gained freedom (by grant or taking) surnames became essential for law enforcement and taxation.

Competing Theories

Other theories attribute the move toward universal surnames to:

Both theories imply a very gradual process, taking place over more than a century. We believe that each factor played a part but do not go far enough in explaining the dynamics of the change.

Arguing against the population growth theory is that the move to universal surnames comes immediately after the greatest depopulation event in European history and that it's fast; the change is almost complete for England and Lowland Scotland in just five decades.

Arguing against the urbanization theory is that the Plague devastated cities -- due to their unsanitary conditions and ports -- more than the countryside. London for example, had a pre-plague population of 70,000, of whom 30,000 died in those two years.

Setting the Stage

Social constructs often do not arise spontaneously, but are borrowed by one culture from another. Anthropologists rely on this principle to determine that there was contact between two peoples.

Following traditions of their Germanic and Frankish ancestors, early medieval Europeans didn't use surnames; only the rich and aristocratic had them -- and, most often, not all of those. Surnames, passed down from father to children through many generations, came into general use in Europe no earlier than the mid-1300s. By 1400, they were common throughout most of Europe .

The word comes from the French "surnom", meaning literally a name written above or over the given name, a practice found in ancient parish records. Most of these names, however, are not not true family names, but simple descriptors or bynames.

In most of the world, only a single name was used to identify a person, making it possible to to focus on the exceptions.

First users of inherited family names

The first people known to adopt the practice of family names were the Chinese (though they and other Asians place them first). According to legend, Emperor Fushi (Fu Xi) decreed the use of family names about 2852 BC. The Chinese family name was one of 438 words in the sacred poem, Po-Chia-Hsing. The next name denotes the generation and is taken from a poem of 30 characters adopted by each family. Finally, comes the given name. (See source.)

Modern Chinese surnames number about 3,100, much reduced from the 12,000 used in the past. (Source.) The 5 most common surnames – Zhang, Wang, Li, Zhao and Chen are shared by 350 million people.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks are reported to have been less interested in genealogy. The Greeks had clan names, but they were seldom used. The clan of Alexander the Great, for example, was said to descend from Heracles.

The Romans

Early Romans used only one name, but later went to three or even four. (See source: Novaroma or source: Behind the Name.) The given name (praenomen) came first, then a clan designation (nomen) and then the family (cognomen). Some Romans added a fourth name, the "agnomen," to commemorate an illustrious action, or remarkable event. As the Empire declined, Romans went back to one name; the three-name practice had gone away before Constantine. (Source)

Byzantine Empire

The Armenian military aristocracy serving the late Byzantine Empire used inherited family names. They began to appear in the 8th century and were pervasive by the 11th century.  (Source)

The Byzantine Imperial family also used an inherited family name at the time of the First Crusade and before. Emperor Alexios I Kommenos was was the nephew of Isaac I  Kommenos, who ruled 1057-1059 and whose brother (John Kommenos) refused the throne. Alexios' nine children were also known by the surname or a variation of it. (The name derived, it is said, from the city of Komne in Thrace.)


The Venetian aristocracy adopted hereditary family names by 1000 AD. From about 568 or earlier, Venice was part of the Byzantine Empire and had a strong Armenian military influence. Charlemagne's son Pepin of Italy tried to seize Venice for the Holy Roman Empire in the early 9th century, but was unsuccessful and, in an 814 treaty, Charlemagne recognized Venice as Byzantine.

During the Crusades (beginning in 1095), Venice became a major staging point for Crusaders' travel to and from the Holy Land. Crusaders returning from the wars through Venice noticed and began to spread the practice throughout Europe. See endnote below.

Early Middle Age Europeans

In the early Middle Ages, most Europeans had only a single, given name -- a Frankish, Angle & Saxon  custom -- but gradually the practice of adding a second name to distinguish individuals gained popularity. By about 1100, a second name for the upper classes had become usual practice. But these descriptive names largely did not apply to families and were not inherited.

Byname -- the hereditary surname's predecessor

In mid-medieval times, a "byname" was common. Think of it as a surname that was not hereditary; a father might have one byname, his son another and his brother yet a third.

We may also think of the byname as a transitional form because many bynames became hereditary surnames. Perhaps, its closest modern equivalent is a nickname.

Surnames in 11th Century England

1066 is the great dividing year of this century, when England passed from mostly Anglo-Saxon control to strict Norman rule under William I. The short story is that the William and his Normans invaded, defeated the Anglo-Saxons, crushed all resistance and instituted a rigid feudal system.

According to "A history of British surnames" by Richard Alexander McKinley, page 26:
"..examples could be given of Norman landholders being without surnames at the time of the Conquest. A further indication of the infrequency of surnames among the Norman nobility is the widespread tendency after 1066 for Normans holding land in England to adopt by-names derived from {their French estates}"


The Angles, Saxons and Jutes -- who had conquered much of Britain by 1000 AD -- used a single name.


Norsemen (Danes and Norwegians) began "viking" (short-term raiding) in England in 793 AD. They began over-wintering in 864 and by 867, controlled a substantial part of England. They established the city of York and made Northumbria the northern part of the Danelaw region. Norse territory and control ebbed and flowed, but was much diminished by 1066.

Norse influence was widespread. All the British isles, plus Greenland and Iceland had Norse settlements. In southern and eastern Europe, Swedish people (Varangians), were predecessors of the Rus who gave their name to Russia.

For the most part, the Norse either used no surname at all or had a strict patronymic system with the surname changing every generation.


The Normans were ethnically Danes who had relocated to northwestern France in the 9th century and become culturally French by the time William invaded England. Their adventures were not confined to the British Isles; they also were a major force in the Mediterranean. We see a few true surnames among this group, but mostly bynames (typically, the names of their French estates).

Name history differs by class.

At this point, we need to distinguish between social and economic classes, as the histories of surnames are radically different for nobility as compared to commoners:

The Normans may have introduced the surname practice to England with their 1066 conquest. William I (the Conqueror) imposed a feudal system on the conquered territory and awarded most of the land to his chief lieutenants -- cleverly scattering their holdings so as as to prevent evolution of large territories antithetical to his rule.. By most reports, William regarded his title as Duke of Normandy more important than that of King of England. Similarly, his barons tended to be absentee landlords, with their hearts (& often presences) more in France than in England.

Sidelight: The absentee landlord nature of Norman & early Plantagenet rule made English governance unique in Europe and had its benefits for historians and genealogists. The situation meant that local governance had to be recorded in writing, so reports (from the "Shire Reeve" or Sheriff)  could be sent to the lord who was not on scene to see for himself. Further, the bulky records could not be carried easily from place to place, so local centers of government became necessary.

Medieval Social Structure

English feudal society had a rigid caste system, described in its Elizabethan form here:

Before the Elizabethan Age

There were important differences from the above description under Norman feudalism, concerning:

In Elizabeth's reign,, serfs were free (She ended the last vestiges of the system.), so Harrison was able to brag, "As for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay, such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become so free of condition as their masters".

However, there had previously been several classes of peasant:

Domesday: 1086/1087

By the time of the Domesday Book a very few wealthy landowners in England had surnames. We have found among those named at least three men (all Norman noblemen) and two with brothers or fathers who bore the same second name. Most at this time are known either by their titles, their birthplaces, their French estates or a nickname .

The Domesday Book lists only 191 landholders by name. Freemen, burgesses, peasants and serfs of various classes are counted by household but (as with plows & livestock) not named. Of those 191 names

(See sources: Domesday Book UK, Wikipedia, and David Roffe, Domesday expert.) Read more about it here.

For our purposes, the Domesday Book tells us that the practice of inherited family names may have started among the Norman nobility by the end of the 11th century, but it was not especially common even in that class. It tells us nothing about surname practices among the unnamed lower classes except -- by implication -- that they were deemed unworthy of notice.

However, the entry for the fishing port of Dunwich, Suffolk (held by Roger Malet, one of our few with possible surnames) counts a number of (French) "free men". In this brief mention, we see the beginnings of a middle class which may be an important factor in surname practices.

12th Century: 1100-1199

Such pertinent records as we've been able to find, indicate that some commoners were listed with bynames such as their occupations. There are some, but few, guild and municipal records available. It's been suggested that household accounts may list some commoners with surnames; we've yet to find any.

An important development in surname history occurred shortly before the century started. The First Crusade began in 1095, causing Crusaders to travel to and from the Holy Land, many through Venice, where surnames were in use.

Pipe Rolls

The extant Pipe Rolls begin in 1130 and continue until 1833, representing an almost continuous record over nearly seven centuries. These are the records of yearly audits performed by the Exchequer of accounts and payments presented to the Treasury by sheriffs and other royal officials. Their name comes from them being rolled into tubes for storage.

Though we've been unable to review them, we presume that at least some names of payors were recorded and the Pipe Rolls are worthy of further study. .

13th Century: 1200-1299

Robin Hood

The Robin Hood ballads began about 1210. Whether real or fictional, the stories of his exploits were popular among those without  aristocratic privileges and expressed a community of spirit and growing dissatisfaction with the system. The "take from the rich" tales and their popularity suggest a widespread backlash against feudal oppression. Looking at the Robin Hood ballads as propaganda, they were effective.

Magna Carta

In 1215, a group of 25 barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta or "Charter of Liberties", limiting his powers and guaranteeing certain liberties to the people. In that group of noblemen were five  with possible inherited family names:

The 47 witnesses included Archbishop & Cardinal Stephen Langton, Bishop Herbert Poore (aka "Robert") and Bishop Richard Poore (brother of Herbert/Robert ). {See list.}

Importantly for our purposes, the charter included this "due process" clause suggesting a growing power of the middle class:

"NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land."

Another in that group of 25 barons was  "William Marshall" (William the Marshall) who became regent for for young King Henry III (John's son & successor) when he's mentioned in 1217. He's named as a "junior" and appears to have passed the Marshall name to at least two of his sons, thus qualifying it as a true surname. 

The charter was subsequently repudiated by John, but reissued several times -- in 1216, 1217,1225 & 1297. The 1297 version was passed as a statute and is the most important from a "constitutional" perspective. It has since been "confirmed" 32 to 45 times.

Feudalism's base erodes

Especially during the 1200s, the foundations of the feudal system began to crumble. The Crusades increased the circulation of money & encouraged replacement of the barter system. The practice of having serfs ("villeins", owned by their masters & tied to the land) work the land proved less lucrative than renting the land to freeman farmers trying to make a profit. Some villeins began hiring out for money, while others deserted the manors entirely for new opportunities in towns. 

Middle class goes to Parliament

The year 1265 saw the first "Great Parliament", with broad representation of commoners. "Knights of the shire" had been summoned in 1213  --  four from each county to be elected by the county's freeholders. But, in 1265, Simon de Monfort (acting in the king's name) requested two knights from each shire and two burgesses from each borough to come to an assembly. The "Charter and the Provisions of Oxford" was the beginning of the House of Commons.

Pipe Rolls

In 1255, 1274-1275 & 1279/1280, Edward I reprised William's Domesday Book project and produced the "Hundred Rolls". Juries were summoned for each county and asked questions by the King's commissioners. The Kent jury testified about, among other things, injustices to "Heldrid of Graverny", "Walter the clerk", "Andrew the plumber", and "Daniel the merchant". The designators after the given names are bynames, not surnames.

Hundreds Rolls

The Hundred Rolls led to further erosion of the privileges of the nobility. "If the barons, {Edward} said, could not show that a king had conferred {the privileges}, then he would take them away." And, Edward transformed the status of knights from military vassals to agricultural landholders. (Source.)

Land reform

Greater erosion yet of the feudal system was produced by the 1290 Third Statute of Westminster or Quia Emptores. This resolved a complex land issue involving "subinfeudation" -- in which a tenant-in-chief would "subinfeudate" part of their lands to obtain knights and those knight sub-tenants would repeat the subinfeudation process, and so on. The barons found sub-tenants unable to agree on who owed rents to whom and requested the King to intervene. He did, but his Statute effectively cut the barons out of the tenancy chain and made sub-tenants direct tenants of the king. This act also had the effect of greatly simplifying transfers of land rights.

Feudalism ending

With these multiple blows, the feudal system was on its last legs by the end of the century. "The reign of Edward I in England, as of Philip IV in France, marks the beginning of the end of the Middle Ages. Mediaeval institutions were passing away." (Source)

14th Century: 1300-1399

The 14th was a century of ferment and change. "The new age was secular and political, rather than religious and feudal." Feudal customs and feudalism as a political & social  force were fading. So, too, was the Church's influence.

Towns and commerce rise:

Towns, with new economic interests,  now became the wealth centers for the nation. The merchant guilds, which had sprouted one per town soon after the 1066 Conquest, were being supplanted by many craft guilds per town.

Parliament takes shape

By 1332, Parliament had taken its present form:  "..we find two houses, instead of three estates : a House of Lords, composed of the barons and greater clergy, .. and a House of Commons, composed of the knights and the burgesses."

Manorial system the backbone:

But in the early 1300s, the manorial system still held sway. "The obligation of the villagers, the peasants, to remain for life and to labor on their lord's lands .. prevailed throughout central and southern England." (Source) This serfdom was soon to be replaced with hired labor, by means of an event no one saw coming.

{The feudal} system had its unique terms. Its Norman (Anglo-French) name was "villeiny" (with an e, not an a) and those bound by it were "villeins" who lived in "vills"; their status was "villeinage". Villeins, among the lowest classes of English society,  were considered free in most respects but obliged to remain on the lord's land and to work it when and as he demanded. {See "The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870", Robert J. Steinfeld; University of North Carolina Press, 1991.}

Coincidentally, the words "villain" & "villainy", in their present meanings, first appeared in the 14th century, right about the time villeins gained freedom from their lords. Some, losing the security of villeinage, turned to crime for survival.

Plague Strikes

The most noteworthy development  of this century -- surpassing even the beginning of the Hundred Years' War -- was the Black Plague striking England (and most of Europe) in 1348. The first pandemic lasted until 1349, and recurred several times during the next few centuries. We'll review the plague and its effects in more detail below, but it had lasting  consequences -- social, political, cultural and economic.

Commoners get surnames

One consequence of interest to the genealogist was the rapid adoption of surnames. One (unconfirmed) story is that Edward III issued a decree in 1353 for the benefit of his local tax collectors (The timing, five years after plague onset, is about right.), requiring that all persons in his realm without a surname take one for them and their children to be known by ever after.

This story may be apocryphal; there may not have been a royal decree or an act of Parliament. (We have not found one.) It may have been that local authorities took on their own the issuance of mandates. Yet, the change seems rapid for such a dramatic departure from previous practice.

Records for commoners are sparse but before 1349 we see no written mentions of these folks which could be reasonably interpreted as giving an inherited family name to the low-born.

On 10 Nov. 1367, an apprentice, Richard Wasshelyn, filed a bill of complaint to a London court against his master, a grocer named John Hatfeld. This may be the first writing of surnames for common people.

By the 1370s, the word "surname" begins appearing in official documents, indicating general acceptance.

Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet, is an interesting case in this examination. Born in 1307 and living until 1381, his life straddles the Plague's worst years. His social class, too, is "in-between" -- neither noble nor peasant. He started as the son of a well-off family of London vintners, whose previous generations had been Ipswich merchants. At age 14, his father's connections helped him land a job as page to a Countess and that led him, eventually, to become an important official in the courts of Edward III & Richard II. We do not know whether he or his father is identified as Chaucer (from the French for shoemaker) before 1349.

If adoption of surnames hadn't become universal by the end of Edward III's reign, the Poll Tax of 1377 hastened the process. This was an annual tax of four pence per year on every male and female older than fourteen. To assure its collection and administration, surnames for all would have been necessary.

In 1385, Richard II issued "An Act regarding Fugitive Villeins", demonstrating that serfs deserting the manors for freedom was a problem worthy of royal notice.

15th Century: 1400-1499

By 1400, historians concur, most families in England and the Scottish Lowlands had surnames. We may regard this as the completion of the process.

Later adopters

Above, we've reviewed how surnames reached English commoners following the 1348 onset of the Plague. In Cromwell's time, the English imposed the practice on Ireland, as a means of gaining control over the rebellious Irish.

Highland Scots: "The use of fixed Scottish surnames occasionally show up as early as the 10th or 12th centuries, but only begin to appear more often during the 16th century. However, this practice was slow to 'catch on', and it took up until the late 18th and early 19th century to spread to the Highlands and northern isles." (Source)

Among the people late to adopt surnames universally were the Dutch. It wasn't until Napoleon conquered the Netherlands and mandated surnames that Hollanders took them, reluctantly. A "name lottery" was conducted in 1811.

Scandinavians clung to their strict patronymic (& "farm name") system until the early 20th century. Norway did not required fixed surnames until 1923.

Parish Registers:

Parish registers are of immense genealogical and historical importance. They begin in England with the 5 September 1538 order by Henry VIII's Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, that each parish priest keep a book, entering all baptisms, marriages and burials of the previous week. The order was repeated in in 1547 and the form of the recordings was specified in 1598, but not enforced until 1603 due to cost. Many of the earlier recordings had been on scraps of paper, easily lost and subject to deterioration; the new form was to be "great decent books of parchment".

During the English Civil War of 1643-1647 and the following religious turmoil, many of the books were hidden or destroyed. From 1653 to 1660,civil authorities took over the work, but handed back the books back to the clergy after the Restoration of 1660.

How dramatic was the Plague and its after-effects?

It's almost impossible for us to now imagine the impact of the "Black Death" -- "Great Pestilence" or "Great Mortality" as it was known then -- on the people and society of medieval Europe. It was "death coming black smoke". No one knew the causes and there was no cure. (Neither cause nor cure would be identified until 1900.) A carved inscription for the year 1349 at St. Mary's in Ashwell, Hertfordshire says:

"Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain."

In mid to late June of 1348, a ship from Gascony docked in Weymouth. Hiding between & under the wine casks in its cargo holds, were rats who left the ship bearing fleas. And those fleas carried a deadly infectious bacteria. The fleas got the disease from feeding on infected rats; when the rats died, the fleas moved on to live hosts and infected them with bites. The disease spread like a nuclear chain reaction, gathering speed and destructive power with each new cycle of transmission.

Not all researchers accept Yersinia pestis as the infectious agent. Some say that it was anthrax, others a filovirus, similar to the Ebola virus. However, the reported symptoms and progression appear to most closely resemble those of Y. pestis infection.

The genome of this ancient Y. Pestis has recently been sequenced. You can read the article here. As the samples were obtained from skeletal remains of mid-14th century burials, the infectious agent appears confirmed.

Bristol was struck early, followed closely by other ports and then inland areas. News traveled slowly; the disease arrived in place after place almost without warning. 


Predisposing conditions

The Plague came on the heels of widespread famine; the people were weakened and more susceptible. It had been a very wet year and crops lay un-harvested and rotting in the fields, encouraging rat multiplication. Rats, of course, were common in most households and flea bites hardly noticed. (Even today, only 10% of plague victims report being bitten by a flea.) The peasants were, perhaps, in their worst state of centuries; their repression had steadily increased since the Conquest.

Population had been on the increase. England may have held as many as six million people, many crowding into the cities. This meant that famine, when it came, would be more severe.

Sanitation was virtually unknown. Chamber pots were emptied into streets filled with rotting garbage. Flies infested open markets. Wells were polluted. Bathing was an infrequent practice.

This happened several centuries before the germ theory of disease was developed. The only prevention measures taken were quarantines (ineffective against the rats).


Within 2 to 5 days after a flea bite, victims would start experiencing chills, general malaise, high fevers, muscle pain, severe headaches, seizures, and bubos -- swelling of the lymph glands, which then turned black.

Those who breathed in the bacteria, would have symptoms within 2-3 days -- difficulty breathing, severe cough and frothy & bloody sputum. Reports are that many died within "a few hours of taking their beds".

Mortality & Morbidity

The actual mortality rate of the English population was not well-recorded at the time and is still in dispute; some think as "little" as one-third, some say one-half and others put the figure higher. Even the lowest estimates represent an immense calamity.

Nor is "decimation" the right word. Decimation takes only 10% of a population; the Plague was much worse than that.

At least three of every seven Londoners died, at one point two hundred per day. Some villages were wiped off the map entirely. In many places there weren't enough healthy people to care for the sick and the dead. Cemeteries were opened with mass graves and almost immediately filled.

The poor (90% of the people) suffered most, but the rich weren't completely spared. King Edward III lost a sister to the plague. In Bristol, 15 of the 52 town counselors died. Three Archbishops of Canterbury died in rapid succession.

The plague comes in three forms, depending on the infection site:

  1. Bubonic -- Infection occurs in the lymph nodes. Bubos or pustules form and turn black; the "shilling in the arm-pit.". Presently, 80-95% of about 2,800 worldwide plague cases per year are bubonic. From exposure to symptoms is a period of 2 to 6 days. Mortality rate without treatment is 50-90%.
  2. Pneumonic -- Infection occurs in the lungs, perhaps from inhaling bacteria-laden dust or droplets from others' coughing. Death is even more certain and rapid than in the bubonic variety. This form is reported to have become more prevalent in the winter of 1348-1349.
  3. Septicemic -- Infection in the bloodstream. Relatively rare, this form seems not to have been prevalent in the 14th century.

Some recovered; today's bubonic plague (perhaps, less virulent) is 40% to 60% fatal without treatment. Some did not get sick; a genetic immunity has been recently discovered. Survivors may have passed the immunity to their offspring.

More waves: A 1361/1362 recurrence is said to have killed 20% -- a horrible figure but less than the first event. It may have come from bacteria spores re-activated after lying dormant in soil or dust. It would keep coming back, the 1660s wave leading to Daniel Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Years".

Emotional aspects

"We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death."
(Jeuan Gethin, Welsh poet, d. Spring 1349)

People were falling all around; they might seem healthy one day and dead the next. So many died, so rapidly; no one knew if they would be next or how long they might have. No one knew if the devastation would end, or even slow. This engendered a "live for the moment" attitude and a disregard for long-term consequences.

"...Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety." (Source)

In this deeply religious culture, worse than the fear of dying was fear of dying without salvation and thus condemning one's soul to eternal damnation. Many didn't survive long enough to confess or undergo last rites.  England, however, did not undergo the rise of extreme cults such as the flagellants seen in other afflicted countries. Officials treated it as a disease, yet one they were powerless against.

Fear officially reached Parliament in January 1349. It was told  that: "the plague and deadly pestilence had suddenly broken out in the said place and the neighbourhood, and daily increased in severity so that grave fears were entertained for the safety of those coming here at the time."


The Plague is sometimes cited as a cause of the Reformation. The Church rested on the efforts and abilities of local parish priests, whose sacramental& duties exposed them greatly to pneumonic infection. Even early in the pandemic, it took four to six weeks to appoint a priest's successor, leaving the parish without leadership. Later, many rapidly- but poorly-trained priests were unable to inspire the same confidence of the congregations and trust was lost.

Economic, social & political effects

Perhaps the first effect was temporary suspension of the Hundred Years' War. England's army, so reliant on its yeomen bowmen and infantry, could not take the field. France, suffering equally, could not press for advantage.

Above we saw that -- before the Plague -- peasants were still bound to the land and to their lords. Bound labor would quickly be replaced by hired labor. The agriculture-based economy was highly dependent on its farm laborers, who made up the overwhelming majority of the population and whose ranks were thinned the most. So long as their number was great, their desires could be ignored. Now, the few of them left were in short supply and great demand.

"The Black Death broke the established social order and weakened serfdom." (Source)

Andrews' History of England: "The fearful disease spared no class of society, but fell most heavily upon the artisans in the towns, the agricultural laborers in the country, the monks, and the parish priests."

Evidence for the Plague's economic impact is the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers (also see Wikipedia and the Freemasonry site), which became the 1351 Statute of Labourers and was re-enacted several times subsequently. These acts attempted (without much success) to hold wages to pre-Plague 1346 levels. It should be no surprise that the statute was passed by a Parliament consisting mostly of landowners seeking to maximize profits by holding down costs. Text of the Ordinance can be found here; among its provisions:

The point bears emphasizing:
    The system of serf labor had collapsed. These laws would be unneeded if workers still felt bound to the land and to their lords. Workers would have had no power to negotiate.

To draw a modern analogy, it was as if the landholders collectively adopted a "salary cap" system like those of professional sports leagues and then each owner individually set about manipulating the cap for the benefit of his own team, thus destroying  it.

Let us also note that collapse of serfdom was rapid and lasting. The Ordinance was decreed while the Plague still raged, its Statute successor two years later. Continuing reenactments show the "labor problem" persisted. King and Parliament were powerless against the economic law of supply and demand.

More evidence that the statute didn't work and laborers were faring better than before comes from Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales". in which the commoners are dressing above their stations.

Priests and monks were hit especially hard; the ranks of the Church were decimated. To replace them, less able and less trained men were recruited. Some attribute this decline in the quality of the clergy for the forces leading eventually to the Reformation.

Where people had previously been moving to the cities & towns for opportunity, they now fled them in fear. Laborers, too, moved to new locations for better wages, if not for health.  A vast in-country migration took place and local officials could scarcely keep track. Manors, villages and parishes which before knew everyone in them now were flooded with suspect strangers.

To draw the contrast starkly:

Policing, taxing, all functions of government became more difficult. To the medieval mind, an unknown stranger represented a threat. Surnames were a way to make the strangers known.

Final note

It is surprising how little shrift historians pay to the calamitous events of 1348/1349. Perhaps, it's because the Plague affected mainly the un-named; only a few of the great lords succumbed and none "consequential"; it thus does not fit into the "great man" view of history. Nor, were there "great deeds" for earning honors and acclaim; it involved no heroic acts or great battles.  Perhaps, because -- in history's "rear-view mirror" -- it happened again and again.

Yet. the phenomenon was unique in its time and left its mark on all descendants of the affected areas. It was particularly deadly in its first incarnation. It engendered lasting changes in society, not the least being universal surnames.

Plague Sources:

Our plague information is compiled and interpreted from a variety of historical and medical sources, including but not limited to those below.

Summing up

We have, hopefully, shown that surname practice in England followed this progression:

We believe the process of surname adoption by English commoners (in contrast to the nobility) was rapid, within a span of five decades or less.

Revised:08 Oct 2013


  1. Venice: Summing up centuries of history in a brief paragraph leaves out much; some will be explained here. It is compiled and interpreted from a variety of sources, none of which mention surnames. They include: A Celtic people known as the Veneti founded a village in southern Italy in 421. In 568, the surrounding, hostile Lombards forced them to relocate to swampy islands in the bay, where they built the city we know as Venice and gained riches through the trade of silk and spices, along with rivals Genoa and Pisa. In contrast to other European cities, Venice grew and thrived in the Middle Ages. They became a "protectorate" of the Byzantine Empire until 726; they would have had Armenian soldiers guarding the city.
    When Venetians gained freedom from Constantinople, they elected their first Doge but retained friendly relations with their former rulers . During the latter half of the 11th century, Norman raiders, in 1071, captured the last Byzantine port opening to the Mediterranean and established restrictive trade rules; in response the Emperor granted duty-free trade to Venetian merchants, further increasing the city's power.
    Venetians were active participants in the Crusades, and it was one of just three ports (others being Genoa and Pisa) through which the 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry must pass. In 1204, Venice was largely responsible for the conquering of Sidon and Tyre. It continued to participate through the Fourth Crusade, in which it took Crusader help in raiding Constantinople as payment for passage.

    Bottom line: Return to text